The Civilized and the Barbaric in The Grand Budapest Hotel

There are flashes of barbarism in Wes Anderson’s highly ornate and carefully ordered The Grand Budapest Hotel. Ralph Fiennes’ fussy hotel concierge, Monsieur Gustave H., may recite Romantic poetry and lament the “barbaric slaughterhouse” that humanity has become, but he still occasionally lets slip an angry “shit” or “fuck.” Like the meticulous auteur behind this film, Gustave is generally discrete, controlling, and civilized, but his intermittent slippages in decorum, and the similar lapses in restraint elsewhere in the film, reveal the tensions in Gustave’s character as well as in Anderson’s aesthetic.

Like so many of the controlling characters at the centre of Anderson’s films, Gustave H. is extremely particular. He runs the Grand Budapest Hotel, located in the fictitious Central European country of Zubrowka, smoothly and tightly, instructing his new lobby boy, Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori), to anticipate his guests’ every need before they do, and above all to be discrete even to a fault.

Gustave himself is impeccably discrete despite his unusual relations with many of the hotel’s old, wealthy, single, and blonde female guests. The scrupulous concierge is something of a gigolo. When one of his longstanding guest-lovers, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) suddenly dies, he is bequeathed an odd yet valuable painting (Boy with Apple) in her will. Her villainous son (Adrien Brody) is infuriated, and sends a Nosferatu-like William Defoe to hunt down and eliminate Gustave and recover the painting. Throughout the various subsequent escapades on trains, in prison, and up and down mountains, Gustave is aided by the faithful lobby boy Zero, who becomes his fast friend.

Anderson the storyteller is a master of discretion as well, and he typically tells his stories through one or more layers of narration. The Grand Budapest Hotel has more layers than ever. It begins briefly in the present with a girl paying tribute to the statue of an unnamed “Author.” Anderson then cuts to the Author (Tom Wilkinson) explaining to the camera how the stories he wrote tended to come to him. Anderson then shows us how the Author, as a younger man (Jude Law), was told this particular story at the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968. At last, the main storyline of the film is told by an old Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who recounts his youth as a lobby boy at the hotel to the Author. (The layers of narration are actually handled more delicately than my clumsy written summary can suggest.)

Anderson also has a particular knack for revealing important information inconspicuously. For example, the most intimate glimpse we are ever shown of Gustave’s inner life is a rather depressing view of him eating a meal alone in his underwear in his tiny bare room. It is clear that Gustave’s entire identity is invested in his role as concierge; he has no life apart from the hotel. Even his amorous affairs are in some sense about serving the needs of his guests. But Anderson presents this information without comment and almost in passing. Anderson’s general restraint in revealing character information makes these passing glimpses all the more crucial, and the viewer familiar with Anderson’s films has been trained to remain alert for such brief, telling moments and asides.

Like any other Anderson film, and it seems increasingly so, The Grand Budapest Hotel displays a wealth of cameos (see the cast list below) and impeccable cinematography, editing, and mise en scène. For instance, the aspect ratio changes to the one most commonly used during each time period (Academy ratio, anamorphic scope, and 16:9), and the 1930s storyline has a palette dominated by pink and grey. As always, Anderson’s framing and camera movements are strictly controlled.

What stands out in this film, though, are the disruptions to the otherwise ordered world of the film—the flashes of brutal violence and twenty-first-century-sounding vulgarisms. But the fact is, such incongruous moments litter all of Anderson’s films, and actually rely upon his otherwise restrained tone for effect. For example, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the gory demise of a cat thrown out a window would not be shocking or awkwardly funny if the scene were shot with rough camerawork or if the film were constantly violent. The intrusions of vulgarity, violence, and serious danger into the seemingly comic, diorama-like world of Anderson’s film suggest that aesthetics are no guard against disorder and genuine evil.

Also significant to the film, and a source of much of its richness and complexity, is its setting in the fictional European nation of Zubrowka, between the two world wars. Zubrowka is presented as a hodgepodge of Central, Alpine, and Eastern Europe, a collection of notions and images straddling the uncertain line between “Continental” and “Eastern,” between “civilized” culture (most visible in the film in the shape of the luxurious titular hotel) and the foreign and strange. The film is constantly, if subtly, blurring the frontier that divides “civilization” and “barbarism,” and it is telling that Zero Mustafa, the eventual owner of the hotel, comes from a generic “Oriental” country ravaged by war. And the fact that these tensions are never explicitly discussed makes the film that much more complex.

The setting also recalls such European capers as The Lady Vanishes (1938), and, like in Hitchcock's film, the spectre of war hangs over The Grand Budapest Hotel.

How important are the film’s seemingly marginal interests in the rise of Fascism in 1930s Zubrowka and the influence of the drab Communist regime on the hotel’s décor in the 1960s storyline? The idea that somehow good manners and civilized culture could prevent or holdback the “barbaric slaughterhouse” was utterly exploded by both World Wars, as civilization itself produced the slaughter. It is no accident that Anderson has set his fanciful longing for a more refined past in the unstable period between two of the most barbaric periods in our recent past. But he also nests that storyline within another period, in which modernist-Communist aesthetics have largely erased the luxurious, refined past. If Anderson, like Gustave, yearns for the ordered culture of a vague past, he also distrusts a bland totalitarian order, which erases eccentricity and allows for no intrusions of personality.

In exploring the relationships between “civilization” and “barbarism,” between polished order and messy anarchy, between refinement and savagery, The Grand Budapest Hotel reveals how the former relies on, and simultaneously contains, the latter, while also foregrounding Anderson’s characteristic reliance on the creative energy generated by such disjunctions.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (USA/Germany, 2014)

Written and directed by Wes Anderson; starring Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, and Tony Revolori.